A social justice special session? It could happen, says lawmaker

Frierson during Ford panel
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson speaks during a "Justice & Injustice" virtual panel discussion held by Attorney General Aaron Ford on June 7, 2020.

The appetite for addressing criminal injustice during a special session this summer exists among lawmakers, a top Nevada Democrat said Sunday.

It’s widely anticipated that Gov. Steve Sisolak will call a special legislative session over budget issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. If (or when) he does, the governor’s declaration for a special session must include the topics to be addressed.

“I would be advocating for addressing this timely issue in a special session,” said Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during a virtual panel discussion hosted by Attorney General Aaron Ford. “We have the budget issue. We have the coronavirus pandemic issue… Now we have a social justice issue that has brewed up and is worthy and timely and certainly of an emergency nature.”

Frierson added that in order for that to happen, lawmakers and the community need “to continue to have dialogues” about social injustices and possible reforms. Frierson is currently an assistant public defender for Clark County.

“We don’t call for a special session then start talking,” he said. “If we have ideas we can get past the finish line, we’ll include it.”

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Department officers on May 25 inspired protests across the country and pushed the Black Lives Matter movement back into a national spotlight. The public outcry has already led to sudden, sweeping momentum for police reform in Minneapolis, including the prohibition of neck restraints and chokeholds and a pledge from city council to dismantle the police force.

Nevada has its own troubling history with law enforcement. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was once considered one of the deadliest police forces in America, and its overuse of deadly force resulted in an audit and investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012. Reforms were made, but social justice advocates contend there are still widespread issues related to over policing of and racism toward Black and brown communities.

Attorney General Ford told the panel of lawmakers, which in addition to Speaker Frierson included Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D), Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R) and state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R), that his staff had compiled a list of recommendations for legislators, including creating an independent commission with investigative and procedural authority that could hold law enforcement accountable. LVMPD has a Citizens Review Panel, but Ford noted that such panels are often seen as toothless because they have limited authority.

Ford also said the state could grant the attorney general office the ability to do “pattern or practice” investigations on police forces — something the Department of Justice can do. Ford has signed onto a letter along with 17 other Democratic attorneys general asking the Department of Justice to explicitly grant that authority federally.

The full list of recommendations from Ford’s office has not yet been made public.

Body cameras

State Sen. Kieckhefer said one possible legislative next step could be to further the use of body cameras worn by law enforcement. Nevada began requiring state law enforcement officers to wear body cameras in 2015, thanks to a bill sponsored by Ford during his time in the Nevada Senate. In subsequent sessions, the use of body cameras has expanded to all cops who regularly interact with the public, including school police officers.

“We’re now identifying a gap in terms of officers who get pulled into active duty who may not have cameras assigned to them,” said Kieckhefer, adding that departments could temporarily assign body cameras to such officers. “Hopefully we can find a way to address that.”

LVMPD shot and killed a 25-year-old named Jorge Gomez outside the federal courthouse in downtown Las Vegas on June 1. The four officers who shot at Gomez were not wearing body cameras because they are assigned to a department that does not normally patrol streets. The officers allege Gomez, who was open carrying, raised his firearm at the officers, prompting them to shoot him.

Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro noted that even when officers do have body cams, they are sometimes not used properly and that issue could similarly be addressed with further legislative action.

“It’s critical to make sure they are activated,” she added. “Sometimes that doesn’t happen. What do we do?”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.